The food stamp bill passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier this month, widely criticized for supposedly cutting the nutrition assistance program to the poor, would actually raise spending over the next decade by 57 percent, to $725 billion from the $461.7 billion that was spent on the program in the last decade.
No sooner had the House voted, 217 to 2010, on September 19 to pass the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act than the usual suspects were rushing to portray the measure as stingy and coldhearted. "House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps," was the headline in The New York Times national news section. The Republican "war on food stamps" shows that the congressmen are "meanspirited class warriors," wrote Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.
That line of attack seems to be getting traction. "I agree with Krugman here," a prominent New York rabbi wrote on Facebook. A news reporter at the Wall Street Journal posted on Facebook, "It's stark to have this wonderful Pope preaching charity at the same time House Republicans are defunding food stamps."
Alas, the episode says more about the quality of Republican communications (poor) and of the press (often shallow and reflexively hostile to Republicans) than it does about what would actually happen to food stamps under the 110-page bill the House passed.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill would spend $725 billion on food stamps over the years 2014 to 2023. The Department of Agriculture's web site offers a summary of spending on the program that reports spending totaling $461.7 billion over the years 2003 to 2012, a period that included a dramatic economic downturn.
This is a great example of how and why it is so difficult to cut government spending, and how warped the debate over spending has become. The Republicans want to increase food stamp spending 57 percent. The Democrats had previously planned to increase it by 65 percent (to $764 billion over 10 years instead of the $725 billion in the Republican bill), so they depict the Republicans as "meanspirited class warriors" seeking "deep cuts."
Now, one can argue that because of inflation, or the eroding value of the dollar, the Republican increase of 57 percent is really some smaller percentage increase. But that pretty quickly turns into a discussion not of food stamp policy but of monetary policy. Which is a fine discussion to have some time, but not the one at hand here.
What's really in the Republican food stamp bill? The usual mix of special-interest silliness and occasional incremental progress that's in most big pieces of legislation. My personal favorite is Section 306, which gives the Secretary of Agriculture one year to conduct a review and report back to Congress on "the economic and public health benefits of white potatoes on low-income families who are determined to be at nutritional risk." There's also a mandate "to increase the purchase of Kosher and Halal food" for the emergency food assistance program. Another section deals with Indian tribes and the preparation and consumption of "traditional food," including "marine mammals."
One provision in the bill ends food stamp benefits for households in which a member receives "substantial lottery or gambling winnings." The next paragraph makes it clear the recipients can get back on the dole if they gamble away their winnings.
Another provision ends food stamp benefits for convicted murderers and rapists, but only if the conviction comes after the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act is passed, so as to avoid the Constitution's Article I prohibition on ex post facto law.
The legislation tries to catch up with the "eat-local" movement, authorizing the use of food stamps for buying a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, share, and providing $20.6 million a year to support farmers' markets.
Other provisions in the bill are aimed at cracking down on fraud, encouraging able-bodied adult recipients to work, and making sure that state programs that allow food-stamp use at restaurants (a relatively new and growing phenomenon) are aimed at serving elderly, homeless, and disabled clients, rather than at people who would just rather go out to dinner.
The bill does not appear to address the desire by the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to ban the use of food stamps for the purchase of sugary beverages. Nor does it appear to do anything to address the research linking food stamps to obesity among nonelderly women.
There will always be some people who are so sick, poor, old, young, or unlucky that they need help with food, and, despite what Professor Krugman would have you believe, there's a pretty broad consensus in this country about the desirability of helping those people, through both private charity and government programs. The real policy action is over how to strengthen the economy to the point where more people are able to feed themselves without help from the government or from charity. Instead, the politicians in Washington are mandating studies of white potatoes. Look for those spuds soon at a federally subsidized farmer's market near you, along with some halal marine-mammal-meat.